Monday, September 22, 2008

The Flatlined Mainlined Churches

Joseph Bottum at First Things has been reflecting on what the demise of the Protestant mainline churches has meant for American political life ("The Death of Protestant America"). Describing America as a Christian nation may scare people but it is an unavoidable fact that America's Christianity has been, in particular its Protestant Christianity, has been an indispensable element of the three legged stool that has been the formula for America's liberty and stability: democracy, capitalism and Protestant Christian religion.

The death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other ­period in American history. Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: The Mainline has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.

I found this last statement especially interesting. "The Mainline has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding." He has in mind the large (but shrinking), theologically liberal denominations that left the authority of Scripture for the certainty of science, and left spiritual salvation for social enlightenment--the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the American Baptists, the Congregational churches in New England, and such.

Of course, this invites a comparison with those other Protestants, the Evangelicals, whose churches are growing in numbers and who continue to influence American culture (though they are notoriously influenced in turn) and American politics. Consider the relative influence of Evangelicals and the Mainlines in the GOP and the Democratic Party, respectively.

Evangelicals generally vote Republican and the Mainlines, insofar as they are theologically liberal, vote Democratic. Yet, while the Evangelicals are an important constituency in the republican coalition, Mainline Protestants receive no mention in political discussion and go entirely unnoticed in the Democratic Party. Whereas the Evangelical presence in the GOP has lead to explicitly Christian approaches to Christian policy concerns, the Mainline presence in the Democratic Party has recognizable influence. The Mainlines don't actually bring concerns to the Democratic Party. They see that the party shares their concerns and flock to it.

And it is remarkable that the Democratic Party no more religious as a result of Mainline Protestant involvement. Indeed, they are a notoriously anti-religious party. The reason for this is that the Mainlines get their moral agenda from the same secular source as the Democratic Party does. After all, when we say "theologically liberal," liberal means departing (or set at "liberty") from the authority of Scripture. So where do they depart to? Rather than the thoughts of God, they turn to the thoughts of men, in particular to secular cultural and philosophical sources, the same sources that inform the rest of the American political left. Though conservative Evangelicals are often co-opted by secular American political conservatism, the Biblical perspective they bring is always there with the potential to challenge themselves and their party. The Mainlines, on the other hand, have nothing to challenge the left. Having abandoned Scripture, all that remains for them are the philosophical tenets they share with their leftist political community. They bring neither salt nor light.

The religious parallel between the right and left in American politics is not that between the Evangelicals and the Mainlines. The religious group in the Democratic Party that corresponds with the Evangelicals in the GOP is the environmentalists. And of course the Mainlines, in lieu of a Biblical agenda and having seen the god of the social gospel fail (liberal progressivism and socialism), has adopted that secular religion as their own.

The Mainline has flatlined.

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